The Tuscan escape
He’s the charming grandson of the famous shoemaker to Hollywood stars and shares his grandfather’s name. Salvatore Ferragamo. With his father, Ferruccio, he has restored and refurbished a medieval Tuscan country estate, Il Borro, in exquisite Ferragamo style. Extracts from a chat with Ferragamo...
How is everything in Italy? How are you all coping with Covid?
We are all well fortunately. The situation has been very challenging — the three-month lockdown period in Italy has been very tough and long. We have had some positive results as well as today Covid-19 in Italy is on the decline — that is reassuring. The serious and critically ill patients have been down, so these are very good numbers.
Since Salvatore Ferragamo is an iconic fashion brand, many people in India naturally think that you are Salvatore Ferragamo, the famous shoe designer? So tell us what you do in this amazing Relais & Chateau property, Il Borro!
I am the third generation and by Italian tradition, the oldest son carries the grandfather’s name. I carry my grandfather’s name — Salvatore Ferragamo, so I am SF Junior in a way and I have this incredible privilege and responsibility to do well in everything that I do. However, I have taken a completely different path. It’s a long story but basically in order to join the fashion side, you have to have some pre-requirements — a university degree, an MBA, work experience and then you work for management who reports to the board and so on. I had all those pre-requirements but I also have an identical twin brother, James, who was really interested in the family business of fashion. He is now in charge and manages that part of the business... and I have been involved with this beautiful project of Il Borro and the incredible transformation of the estate into something truly unique.
Can you tell us a little bit about Il Borro?
It is sometimes difficult to describe Il Borro. It is an incredibly authentic experience — you can stay in a medieval village which has been completely restored and perfectly renovated and transformed into a five-star Relais & Chateaux hotel, so guests can come to Tuscany, stay at Il Borro in the medieval hamlet and have a truly unique cultural, historic and architectural experience with all the modern comforts that they are accustomed to, which is very important.
You have a fantastic restaurant....
Yes, we actually have two restaurants on the property — one is a casual one and the other a gourmet restaurant. What is important is that all the produce which is farmed on the estate is actually available for our guests in the restaurants — so on the property we produce wine, extra virgin olive oil, wonderful honey from our local bees, chicken, eggs and beef. From this year, we will be producing our own flour from ancient wheat, so bread, pasta and pastry too will be made here. We are also planning on getting sheep soon and they will be producing pecorino and ricotta cheese, so it’s truly a unique experience for the guests. Our wonderful chef — Andrea Campani — has been with us for many years and is excellent in traditional Tuscan cuisine.
We also have a pizzeria. From this year, our pizzas will be produced with our own wheat, which has a very low content of glucose and is easy to digest. Ingredients from our own garden are used and the mozzarella comes from a local producer in Tuscany.
A few years ago you had mentioned that the estate is completely sustainable. Is that still correct?
We are certified organic in all our farming practices. For the hotel we produce our own solar energy so we actually qualify as a negative carbon footprint property because we produce three times the energy that we consume.
And do you think that this will become more and more important now as the whole world has been hit with Covid-19? The expression “responsible luxury” is a little cliched but in your case it’s not a cliche at all — it’s reality! Are you getting more enquiries now for the next season because you really provide responsible luxury?
Yes, absolutely! We had put our solar fields back in 2010 and for the past five years have started organic farming. But after Covid, we have realised that in Italy, due to the lockdown, the quality of the air in a town like Florence, which is in the valley, is subject to pollution because of the traffic and so on, but we have had some incredibly blue skies, clear air and everybody just appreciated that with many comments on social media about Florence and how amazing that was. I think that today this is something that is very present in all our minds and this can be done — we can be socially responsible and Il Borro is an example of that!
Is the hotel open now?
Yes, we opened on July 1. As you can imagine, we have very low occupancy. International travellers are having a very difficult time to get to us so for the moment we are working much more with the local market.
Can you tell us the history of Il Borro. When I met your father Ferruccio, he said it took 10 years of renovation. What do you think made him take on this enormous task of converting a medieval village and turning it into a Relais & Chateaux property?
It’s a story that goes back to 1993. We would actually come to the property and rent it from the previous owner and it was just a place for the family to gather on the weekends. Then we had the opportunity of buying this beautiful property and transforming it into something really special. I thought it was an incredible concept and we could share the beauty of this place with the world — the medieval village, the villa, the property, the farming, the wines and so on, to make it sustainable and that is why we did it — it was also a diversification of my father’s investments but at the same time with a clear vision.
How many rooms do you have at Il Borro? You also have a property called Viesca, right?
Yes we do. Viesca is a beautiful property which is actually my grandmother’s home. She unfortunately passed away two years ago. It is just 20 minutes away from Florence and 20 minutes from Il Borro. Everyone has their own villas here — in these Covid times it is perfect as social distancing is natural!
Tell us a little bit about your wines? Your wines are available in India, right?
Yes our wines are available in India. We produce white wines — a wonderful Chardonnay and many different red wines. Tuscany is particularly well-known for its reds so we have the flagship wines — Il Borro which is a mix of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes with 18 months in oak. It is full-bodied and the 2016 vintage got a fantastic 96 points from Robert Parker. We are really doing well with those wines.
Under what name should the people in India look out for your wines — is it the Il Borro label?
Well we have the Il Borro Toscana which is a full-bodied wine. We have another wine called Pian di Nova which is a Syrah and Sangiovese and another 100 per cent Chardonnay — these are the main wines we have in the Indian market. We also have a Rose which is beautiful.
Do you have the beautiful bubbly in the Indian market or do we have to come to Il Borro for that?!
I’m glad you remember that — Bolle di Borro. We have a few bottles in India. We actually only produce 5,000 bottles for the whole world, so it’s highly allocated and very limited number of bottles that we sell of those wines. It’s a wonderful concept... Rose Methode Champenoise-style from 100 per cent Sangiovese grapes and is really unique. We also have other wines like the Alessandro which is our Syrah.
You have been to India before, so tell us a little bit about your impressions of India?
Yes, I have been to India several times and one of my most memorable experiences is an Indian wedding I attended of a close friend of my sisters that lasted three weeks. The wedding started in Delhi and ended in Chennai. Indian people really know how to party and I had a fantastic time. It was a great experience and I saw a lot of India at that time. Apart from the wedding, the other things I remember are visiting the Taj Mahal. It was very impressive. Also the Lake Palace, the Windy Palace (Hawa Mahal), the incredible craftsmanship, the artisans, the workmanship and the beautiful architecture and buildings were truly incredible.
Tell us a little bit about the artisans in Il Borro village?
We have a shoemaker, a beautiful jewellery store where you can actually take classes on how to make custom jewellery, then there is a lady who produces her own fabrics which are spectacular, a ceramics shop and a person who does furniture restoration.
Would you recommend Il Borro for an Indian wedding?
Yes, I would. In fact, we have had a couple of Indian weddings here. I think Indians and Italians are very similar — we love family, particularly large family gatherings, good food, good wines, good parties, so I think Il Borro is ideal for the Indian market.
How many people can stay at Il Borro? How big a wedding can you have?
We can have about 200 guests maximum staying on the property and we have facilities that can accommodate more than that — about 350 guests. But as I mentioned, we have Viesca which is 20 minutes away and that accommodates around 100 guests.
So you can actually have a wedding/party right in the middle of the medieval village?
Yes, I actually got married in the medieval village almost 20 years ago — it’s an incredibly romantic experience. There’s this beautiful little chapel in the village, where you can have the ceremony where you walk over this very narrow and tall stone bridge which is the only means of access through the medieval village, then up through the winery and then through the villa and from there to the reception. The dining experience can be held in one of our Italian gardens. Then we have another area dedicated for parties which is very special. It is a very beautiful place for weddings, but we try to limit our weddings so our main hotel activities continue. We never mix the clients of the hotel with the property for weddings. You have to book the whole property for a wedding as it’s not fair to the other guests to close off part of the property when there is a wedding.
Do you own the whole estate? How big is it?
Yes we do. The estate is about 3,000 acres (1,100 hectares).
How do you rate the hotel experiences and service in India?
I remember staying at the Oberoi hotel in Agra and that was a really wonderful experience. I think something that India does really well... better than Italy... is the staff and service — both were impeccable.
What are the prerequisites to be part of the Relais & Chateaux?
Relais & Chateaux is an association of around 520 hotels and restaurants around the world. They have to be privately owned and not belonging to large corporations. The most important aspect is that every property is unique to every owner. Every property has a different jewel so to speak. At Il Borro we have the beautiful jewel of the medieval village. If you go to Venezuela, there’s a property there where the owner has a beautiful collection of butterflies, so the beauty of Relais & Chateaux is that every property has something special about it.
Karen Anand is a culinary consultant, food writer and entrepreneur. In recent times her name has been synonymous with farmers’ markets. Follow her on Instagram @karen_anand